In Syria, When Rebels Become Regime

Locals in the Syrian city of Idlib were happy when rebel forces overturned regime forces. But now the rebels are enforcing their own version of military rule.

Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters marching through the streets of Idlib
Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters marching through the streets of Idlib
Belal Alshami

IDLIB â€" When rebel forces overran Idlib this past April, residents welcomed the long-awaited end to President Bashar al-Assad’s suffocating grip on the city. Now, more than three months later, they are protesting the military rule that the rebel groups have forced on the northwestern Syrian city.

Suhayb Abu Yahya, 32, has been active in organizing protests calling for civilian-led governance in Idlib. “We held many organizational meetings, launched a campaign on social media and mobililzed people to rally in the streets,” he tells Syria Deeply. “We have a clear demand: civilian rule in the city and the full transfer of all military centers to outside of the city as soon as a civilian police force is ready to keep order.”

Since evicting the Assad regime’s forces, dozens of armed groups have ruled Idlib, including the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Ahrar al-Sham and others.

Locals say they have been stuck in the middle of the factions since the rebel takeover. In addition to shelling the city regularly, the Assad regime has cut off many basic municipal services in Idlib, such as water, electricity and sewage. Yet the regime’s policy of collectively punishing Idlib’s residents hasn’t distracted them from voicing objections to the opposition’s military rule.

Idlib has been deeply engaged in the uprising since its earliest days. Civil activism has flourished, and locals have established civil patrol units, new schools, women’s centers and media centers to function as shadow institutions to the regime.

It was a small step from resisting the regime to protesting against another stripe of military rule, this time imposed by opposition forces. The idea that those who liberate land then get to own it didn’t go over well in the city.

Arrests and expropriations

Abu Hammam, a 44-year-old resident of Idlib who works at a local orphanage, says he and other activists were frightened when they saw that opposition forces established military rule in other parts of Syria. “We went out in the streets to demand civilian rule in order to avoid what happened in other liberated areas â€" they were all taken over by military forces,” he says.

“We want Idlib to be a model for other liberated areas in Syria,” he says. “It was already a model for uniting the military opposition to fight the regime.”

Although there has been “some harassment” from armed factions in Idlib during the protests, Abu Hammam says it was isolated. “None of the factions have objected to our campaign. We are seeking support to end military control and to build a neutral, civilian judicial system to protect people’s rights.”

Others accuse some armed groups â€" especially the Nusra Front â€" of a crackdown that included arrests of outspoken activists, expropriations of private and public lands and raids on police stations in the towns of Kafr Nabl and Kafr Sajna, both in Idlib province.

Ayham Salamah, a 29-year-old aid worker, says these oppressive measures are a barrier to transitioning to civilian rule. “The Nusra Front’s violations have significantly increased in Idlib’s countryside areas,” he says.

Desperate for outside help

Protests erupted in the Salqeen and Kafr Sajna as locals objected to the Nusra Front’s confiscation of private property and harassment at the hands of the Hisba committee, the religious police. Salamah says the Hisba harass women who don’t dress in accordance with the Nusra Front’s interpretation of Islamic law and attack shopkeepers who don’t close their stores during prayer time. Many activists, he says, are demanding the militant organization’s full withdrawal from the area.

“Although our efforts are currently focused on ending military rule, we’ve also been working on many other issues, like preserving the city’s antiquities, protecting museums and establishing education and municipal services,” he says.

Elsewhere, Raqqa has been firmly under the control of ISIS since 2013. Following Idlib’s takeover, the Assad regime continues to lose ground across the country, including in Daraa, Quneitra and al-Hasakah. Activists in Idlib hope to provide a blueprint for civil rule that other cities and districts can follow.

Abu Yahya says that civil groups have drafted a list of recommended names to potentially help organize a civilian government in the city. “We proposed the list to the Shura council the coalition of rebel factions … but we are still waiting for a response,” he says. “We also have many ideas that can be implemented in the near future to put pressure on the militants and force them to leave the city, if necessary.”

Abu Yahya says their struggle will not be easy without outside support. “We demand action from international humanitarian organizations to support our civilian-led, nonviolent movement,” he says. “We need supplies and funds to ensure that the needs of the city’s residents are met.”

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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